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Free community college movement gains momentum

Oregon Promise expects to enroll about 7,000 students in fall 2016
University Business, December 2015
The Oregon Promise program is similar to Tennessee Promise, which launched in fall 2015.
The Oregon Promise program is similar to Tennessee Promise, which launched in fall 2015.

Oregon’s 17 community colleges expect a jump in fall 2016 enrollment, when the first group of eligible students takes advantage of the state’s new free tuition plan created this summer.

With it’s Oregon Promise program, the state joined Tennessee and the City Colleges of Chicago in a movement that some believe will spread as states look to produce more highly skilled graduates.

“We’re hoping that students will take advantage of this to at least explore community college, even if they later find out this isn’t right for them,” says Bob Brew, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission’s Office of Student Access and Completion. “They’ll have a chance to change their lives without incurring a whole bunch of debt.”

The state will offer the community colleges—which operate independently—additional funding for Oregon Promise support initiatives, such as summer bridge programs and intrusive advising.

Student support anchors the Tennessee Promise, which in the fall of 2015 enrolled its first cohort of 15,830 students in the state’s 13 community colleges. The nation’s first statewide free community college-tuition program increased enrollment of students entering community college straight from high school by 14 percent, says Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise.

Oregon Promise, by the numbers

Enrollment growth

  • 7,000—Approximate number of students who currently enroll in Oregon community colleges each fall
  • 8,500—Maximum enrollment anticipated for fall 2016, when Oregon Promise (which is anticipated to have about 7,000 participants) begins

Initial program requirements

  • Students must have lived in the state for 12 months.
  • Students must graduate high school in spring or summer 2016 with a 2.5 GPA.
  • Undocumented students, who may number about a few hundreds, may participate.

“Financial aid is a key part of it but we know there’s more,” Krause says. “We’re making sure these students start in a position to succeed.”

Tennessee Promise students must attend full-time and continuously because that makes them more likely to complete. Tennessee’s graduation rate for full-time community college students is 60 percent.

All students have mentors and get basic guidance in registering for classes and other college necessities. The program has already recruited 50,000 students for fall 2016—though not all of those will participate. Because all students must submit a FASFA, some discover they qualify for Pell grants to attend a four-year college and chose that option, Krause says.

“We don’t think 50,000 students will use Tennessee Promise next fall, but what we really value is the conversations—that tells us there have been 50,000 conversations about going to college,” Krause says.

The program has provided some funding to allow the state’s 13 community colleges to hire more advisors and counselors to guide students, adds Warren Nichols, the Tennessee Board of Regents’ vice chancellor for community colleges.

“We no longer have students coming in as undecided majors,” Nichols says. “Every student works with a counselor or advisor to identify their course of study so they’re not wandering aimlessly taking courses that will not get them where they need to go.”

Recent reports say New York Gov. Mario Cuomo has talked to the White House about making community college free in his state.

And Morley Winograd, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Campaign for Free College Tuition, says Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Washington are among states considering “promise”-type programs, while the candidates expected to run for governor of California in 2018 support the idea.

The momentum—and competition between neighboring states—created by the programs in Oregon and Tennessee will force other community college systems to take action, Winograd says.

“We think there’s eventual bipartisan common ground in keeping tuition free and keeping down higher education costs,” Winograd says. “We’ll get a considerable number of experiments in different states, and these laboratories of democracy will point the way to how it should be done.”

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